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I'm an undergraduate and currently applying to summer research programs that ask for letters of recommendation. Last summer, I did research at a university with a professor who I'm planning on asking for a letter. He mentioned how he would like more people who are studying computer science to apply to his summer program, so I was thinking of telling him after the request for the letter that as a token of my appreciation, I would be happy to encourage people in the computer science department to apply to the program.

Another professor who I was considering asking is thinking of teaching a course in the fall that I want to take. I was also thinking of asking him following the request for the letter of recommendation about whether he is still planning to teach the course and that I would like to take that course with him in the fall.

My intention is to give something to get something even if both professors would most likely write me a letter regardless of whether or not I "offered" them something in return. Are these things that most professors would appreciate, or do they sound too business-like and Machiavellian (in that they are part of an email asking for a letter of recommendation)? Should I just straight up ask for the letters?

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Just straight up ask for the letter. There is no need to "pay back" with some favor. Writing letters of recommendation is part of a supervisor's job. However, it would be wise to include in your email:

  1. Position description so they can describe the most applicable aspects of your prior work in their letter
  2. Ask if they would be willing to write a "positive letter of recommendation" because if it is not positive, they should not write it
  3. Information about: where to send the letter, to whom it should be addressed, and the date when the letter is due
  4. Ask if they would like you to send a reminder email 2 weeks and also 2 days prior to the letter of recommendation due date

Additionally, if it has been some time since you spoke to this person or you do not know if they remember you, include your latest CV or Resume with your email. You should never have to draft your own letter of recommendation. I highly look down on this practice, though you may encounter it.

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18  
The underlying thread in this (excellent) answer is "Make it easy for the prof to write the letter." I agree with that SO MUCH. One more thing possibly worth including: a quick description of major classwork (big paper, role in a big group project, that kind of thing) you did in the prof's classes. – D.Salo Jan 6 at 0:52
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@D.Salo, add what classes you took with them, and experience TAing. – vonbrand Jan 6 at 14:39
    
I think it's also better to ask from professors who you have worked with in the past. Strangers who don't know you don't have a motive to write a good letter or even write it at all. – George ZP Jan 12 at 22:41

I wouldn't include anything that smelled of a tit-for-tat in your request. It's unbecoming of you and insulting to the professor.

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Offering something in return is a bad choice -- it smells of bribery and is insulting. Even worse, it's an insufficient bribe (not that I condone bribery, but if you do it, at least do it right). Seriously, in a way, the prof is vouching for you. You can't and shouldn't pay for that -- first no price is high enough and second, paying would completely remove any value of the recommendation (the person recommends you for your attitude/skills/etc, not because you did this person a favor).

However, do what you wanted to do for the two profs (and yourself) anyway, just don't tell them about it. Don't even hint about it.

This means:

  • Recommend the summer program to others, but don't tell the prof about it and don't tell the students that you (also) did it to thank the prof. Do it because the summer program will likely be very well done and deserves more participants (if you think so; if you don't, then don't recommend the program -- you can't squander the time of other students to "reciprocate" a favor). If the students tell the prof that you recommended the summer program to them, that's fine, but don't force it. Telling the students to tell the prof that you recommended the program would make you appear very manipulative.
  • Same with the course. Don't ask the prof whether he will give the course, find it out via the website. Don't announce your participation just take part in the course. And do a good job.

And if the apparent lack of reciprocity still bugs you, pay it forward. Come time, you will be in a position of doing something for others, perhaps including writing letters of recommendation. And if the person is good enough to deserve a recommendation, then do it.

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To take a slightly different tack from other commenters: I completely agree that you should not make it sound like you are trying to trade a favor for the letter. That is not how things work, and would come across as insulting (or more likely, just silly).

That said, your professor, like you, is an ape, and likes to be groomed. There's nothing wrong with combining your request with positive sentiments that will have the professor thinking favorable thoughts while also thinking about you. So in the first case you might say something like "I found last summer to be such a great experience that I'm applying for similar programs again for this summer..." and then do the brass tacks as Sydney Everhart says. Similarly, with the professor in your department, you can write out the email, and then add "P.S. I heard you were thinking about teaching course X next fall. It sounded pretty interesting. Are you still planning on it?"

Don't expect any remarkable results, but I don't think it's problematic to do so.

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Downvoted. Flattery has no place in a reference request. It is fine to like a course and to tell the prof so; as an independent thread. Linking flattery or other micro-favours to a reference request is very bad tact, though, if not worse. If profs agree to write a reference for you it is because they should be convinced of your ability/suitability. Reference writing is tedious, but the writers know it is important - any serious and professional reference writer will do that with no rewards attached if they believe in you. – Captain Emacs Jan 6 at 13:21

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